Billy ‘Daniel’ Bunter has been a pioneer of underground dance culture and an all-round party instigator for 25 years.
It’s quite a feat when you consider he’s only in his early 40s, but at just 15 he was DJing at the pivotal London club night Labrynth/2000AD, held at Dalston’s Four Aces. What began as a bit of fun on the weekends ended with a five-year residency that placed him at the forefront of rave’s evolution towards a harder, faster sound.
In 1995, Bunter set up the Great British Techno label, or GBT, which would take the essence of happy hardcore and alter its course, steering the sound away from hackneyed samples and pure cheese towards its deeper roots in trance and techno. The sound would take Bunter to some of the biggest raves across the country, like Dreamscape, Raindance, Desire and Rezerection.
But standing in one place for too long wasn’t in his nature, and as happy hardcore reached a peak he switched lanes. His next label, Honey Pot Recordings, helped define the hard dance (or hard house) sound and the late ’90s saw Bunter—along with DJs like Lisa Pin-Up, Andy Farley and Nick Sentience—play to thousands each weekend at parties like Sunnyside Up and Twisted. In the ‘00s, a collaborative partnership with Slipmatt led to a million-selling series of Helter Skelter compilations released under the umbrella of Ministry of Sound.
It’s a storied existence from a larger-than life-character and Bunter’s put it all down in his autobiography The Love Dove Generation, which looks back on the people, the clubs and the music that made up the scene, the never-ending pilled-up weekenders, and one paranormal happening.
When I catch up with Bunter he’s on boisterous form, Honey Jack Daniels in hand and a mischievous grin on his face.
You’ve just finished one of your two weekly radio shows on Kool London. What’s it been like coming up from the pirate radio days to internet radio?
The internet has made music even more accessible and exciting. Anyone from my generation who goes against that and disagrees, they’re stagnant — not just because of the vast wealth of people we can reach, but the excitement of it. I see networks like Facebook as brilliant — I mean, fuck me, I don’t have to rent offices, I don’t have to have a shop front, I don’t have to have a record shop, it’s free! When I hear older DJs and record labels going, “Oh, we don’t like the internet. The internet has killed music,” I think, are you fucking stupid?
You were talking on your radio show about being described as an artist, but that you’d you never really thought about yourself in those terms.
This is my way of life. I was fascinated by music from a very young age, and my first professional gig — if you can call it professional — I was 15, surrounded by football hooligans and drug dealers, in a renowned backstreet East London club [Dalston’s Four Aces] with prostitutes, pop stars and pilled-up ravers coming in and out. And from then to this day, I’ve never not DJed, I’ve never not been part of this. So it’s not art to me – it’s a complete way of life. And I’ve made hundreds of records, I’ve had mix albums in the charts, I’ve cut and produced Top 40 records. I’ve never looked at it as art. This is what I do, this is all I know how to do.
Someone said, “Oh, you’ve created this out of turmoil. You’re so creative, and you and your dad took drugs together and robbed phone boxes, and you made all this music.” And I’m thinking, “Fuck off man, you’re looking at that way too deeply.” In no way whatsoever do I see what I do as art. Others might. I can’t see it as anything but a way of life.
You started out in the family business working in markets, which seems a world away from where your life went. What drew you to dance?
So much in music’s about timing and I just think the timing was right, but back then I never stopped to think about it. I worked in a record shop called Paul for Music in Whitechapel during the illegal rave era of ‘89. Back then the music was all the same tempo, all under one roof without so much division. But at the turn of ‘90 into ‘91, when I was 15, I got my break with Labrynth and 2000AD at the Four Aces, in Dalston Lane, just as the music started speeding up and getting a British edge.
At the time you wouldn’t go to Dalston, it was nothing like it is now. You’d walk down the road with your record box and if you were on your own you’d get mugged. But fortunately the promoters, Joe and Phil kept trouble off the streets – they had security and some of the most ‘known’ people in the area looking after it, so trouble never reached inside the club.
What was Labrynth like back in those early days?
That was where I experienced the music getting faster. I had Shut Up and Dance, DJ Hype and Liquid all giving me records in Paul’s, feeding me their music. And I was like, yes, I love this, more, more, more! There were only a handful of DJs at Labrynth/2000AD. We were young — I was 15, 16. The other guys were 20 to 25, Adrian Age and Vinyl Matt were the dons. We were living the lifestyle, we were in the hub of a brand new thing. Two thousand people a weekend are coming to hear us, we’re surrounded by drugs, we’re in this den of iniquity and we’ve got carte blanche to take and do whatever we want. I don’t think that the Four Aces could have been that great without that kind of debauchery around it. Surely a club can’t be great if it’s prim and proper?
Nowadays you’ve got rules and you can’t smoke in ’em and you can’t do this or that. I had a meeting with a club owner the other week and they said, “We had a band in here last weekend and everyone was off their tits.” Mate, it’s a fucking club – what do you want them to do, come and read fucking books? It’s not a library, is it?
So much creativity and greatness comes out of decadence. If clubs are bound by all of these rules of what you can and can’t do, you’re just going to end up with faceless music — because people can’t go to these venues and [whispers] do things they shouldn’t actually be doing. If teenagers can’t do that then it’s no wonder we’ve got so much fucking music that sounds the same, because restrained people don’t express themselves.
Talking of debauchery, part of those Labrynth days was a notorious after-party known as ‘Sunday Bollox’. What was that about?
Sunday Bollox was… [laughs] Well, Labrynth was on Friday and Saturday, 10pm to 6am. And through ‘91 to ‘92, the promoters, the DJs – myself and my dad included – found ourselves carrying on after the doors shut. When people left the club on Sunday morning, 80 per cent of them went home to come down, get themselves together and get ready for work. But not the other 20 per cent. Joe and Phil, the promoters, would hire film or music studios, or someone would give you their flat and let 100 or 150 people in, and we’d be up for days on end. Then we’d roll in Wednesday or Thursday, freshen up, and start again Friday and Saturday night. Obviously, drugs were a massive fucking part of it, and the drugs were fucking amazing. But after about a year it got out of hand. As Joe Labrynth says in my book, it got to the point where you looked around and it was like, what the fuck are we doing to ourselves?
A big part of your story is when you made the move from happy hardcore into hard dance. Why did you make the transition?
Basically, from 1990 to 1995, dance music kept shifting in tempo to cater for different vibes, flavors, moods and feelings. And then all of a sudden it got to 1996 and everyone was like, “I’m house, I’m drum and bass, I’m happy hardcore, I’m progressive, I’m trance, I’m big beat,” and that was it. And if you go back and look now there are all these people who stopped evolving because they’d mastered their art and were sticking with it. But personally that wouldn’t have fulfilled me, and it wouldn’t have led me to where I am now. I have this need to never stand in one place too long. Sometimes it’s been to the detriment to my career, but I just think life would be fucking boring if it was the same thing over and over. As a DJ our job is to keep moving the music forward and keep moving people’s perspectives forward, because there’s so much more to this than just a one-dimensional sound.
When I first got booked for Sunnyside Up I loved it, it reminded me of the raves of ‘92, so I went with it. I remember when happy hardcore was at its peak and I started changing my music, people were like, “Are you fucking mad? You’re going up to Rezerection, you’re at Helter Skelter, you’re going all over the world. Why the fuck are you changing your music?” But you have to believe in what you play. So I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going with this”. I mean, I never set about being hard dance or hardcore – it was just, “I like this and it’s what I’m going to do.”
You were involved in hard dance for a long time, but you’re clearly a lover of all music. Does snobbery in dance culture annoy you?
Yes, because everyone has a right to like what they want. I mean, think about the Ramplings turning peopleaway from their clubs back then. Come on, mate. It’s music! It’s about peace, love and enjoyment. What gives someone the right to turn someone away from their event because of the way they look? I’ve got to pay homage to them for their impeccable timing and what they pioneered, but the next generation of music that came along created something totally different, and you can’t discount that just because you don’t think it’s ‘cool’. It might not be a tale like Rampling or Oakenfold’s, where you look back on it with romance in your eyes of where it began, but hardcore, jungle and rave was British, cutting edge and rough round the edges, and it’s our tale, and fucking exciting and still relevant to this day.
Why do you think people turned their nose up at rave?
The speed of the music, some of our DJ names — they just didn’t fucking understand it. That’s what makes music so exciting: everything’s a reaction to something else. I mean, we were the reaction to Mixmag and DJ Mag and Radio 1, who all hated us. And the more they ignored us, the bigger Helter Skelter got, the bigger World Dance got, the bigger Raindance got, the bigger all the DJs got.
So without media coverage, what made it such a success?
I think the beauty of our scene lay in the fact that everyone was welcome – fat and thin, black, white, different age groups, it didn’t matter. And that’s why we are still here. I relish the fact that Mixmag or Radio 1 didn’t support us. When Helter Skelter had 20,000 people at their Energy rave, Mixmag never talked about us. When Dreamscape did a massive rave at Northampton Aerodrome and me, Vinylgroover, Slipmatt, Dougal were on in front of 10,000 people, DJ Mag weren’t sucking up to us. And that makes it so much more magical, that 25 years later we are still here and people are still talking about us and the music’s still exciting.
As well as DJ you’re a label owner, what have you learned from that side of the business?
I’ve learned, first and foremost, to have fun. This isn’t work. You own a label, you’re DJing, you’re promoting. Music is honest, so your honesty will shine through. And if you’re having fun people will gravitate toward that. Of course you’re going to lose money and you’re going to have ups and downs. But through that, if you’re having fun everything will work out. I mean, for fuck’s sake, we’re entertainers, no need to make a hardship of it.
You also talk a lot about being a promoter in the book. One chapter is almost a ‘how to’ guide – why did you focus so much on that side of the business?
Promoting is an absolute skill, it’s probably a whole other book in itself, because to be a promoter you’ve got to be headstrong. It’s always perceived as glamorous and some people get delusions of grandeur, thinking this is how they’ll make their fortune, but I’ve only met a few promoters who’ve made their millions just off of being a promoter. I’ve met lots of DJs and lots of producers who are millionaires, but promoting — you’re relying on people on a random Friday or Saturday night to decide they want to come to your club and buy into your event. There could be a train strike, there could be a bomb scare – Christ, the weather could be shit! [Laughs] It’s the most unforgiving part of the business, so I guess you’ve got to be a special kind of idiot to do it, and that is what I am — a special kind of idiot.
I guess, some DJs who I’ve met don’t have quite as much of an agreeable personality as yourself; what do you attribute that to?
I think I’ve got a big personality but a little cock, that’s what it’s all about. My missus doesn’t really like to tell people I’ve got a little cock, it’s a bit of an embarrassment. [Laughs] Actually… say I’ve got a massive cock, I was lying – it’s humungous like a fucking snake!
I’ll make sure I get that in! So with the book out, you can now add publisher to your CV, but what’s next?
I want to invest what I’ve received out of music into telling the story of our scene, because it’s interesting, uniquely British, and deserves to be heard. The trendy world has created an elite of ‘cool’ dance music, praising people who make faceless records that do the same thing for eight minutes — well, they never inspired our generation. My friends from the world of hardcore, rave and jungle, who stood by their music through thick and thin, are the elite who inspired that elite.
So we’re going to publish more books – the next one is by Mark Archer of Altern 8, titled The Man Behind the Mask – and [there’s] a gallery show at the Aquarium in Old Street [from February 24-26] called ‘The Rave Story from a Working Class Perspective’. Y’know, you can’t laugh at us anymore like Mixmag did in the mid-90s, and you can’t sweep us under the carpet, because we’re still here, we did this ourselves, and it’s my mission to keep that alive.